February 12, 2009
Wait 'Til Next Year
This spring, while I continue to search for new ways to cover college baseball, I will nevertheless do one traditional exercise for anyone on this beat by ranking the national landscape to provide you with my own top 25 list. Yet, as I spent the offseason searching for the best schools to fill out the list and the best way to organize them, I began to see a few clear separations. More than specific rankings, there are what I see as relatively clear-cut tiers. Six programs stood out as the cream of the crop, 12 more are schools that are just a break or two away from contention, and after that initial 18 the final seven that make up my list are interchangeable with the bevy of near-misses that I'm sure will gain consideration or make it onto the list at some point during the season.
In my next two articles before the season gets underway on February 20, I'll spend the majority of time dissecting the 18 programs that rise above the rest. Today, we'll detail the six schools that I think are most ready to vie for a national championship, so let's begin the dialogue by showing off the first tier of the Baseball Prospectus NCAA Top 25:
3. Texas A&M
4. Cal State Fullerton
5. North Carolina
All six programs were NCAA Tournament selections a year ago, and should take the next step forward in 2009. Cal State Fullerton, North Carolina, and LSU were among the eight national seeds, with the latter two programs honoring their selection with a run to Omaha; Fullerton fell to Stanford in the Super Regional round, and Texas A&M lost to sixth-seeded Rice. The University of Texas had been unable to get out of the Rice regional a week before, while Missouri couldn't survive a tough first-round test at top-ranked Miami's home regional. Here are each program's significant 2008 statistics:
School AVG/ OBP/ SLG SB-SBA DER ERA IP K BB
CSUF .303/.394/.449 126-175 .640 4.58 570.0 491 183
LSU .306/.382/.509 95-120 .649 4.11 626.1 554 201
Mizzou .301/.408/.457 43- 68 .614 4.58 520.1 495 171
UNC .324/.400/.486 69-100 .646 2.92 613.0 681 302
Texas .306/.403/.479 70- 93 .656 4.48 540.1 447 211
Tex A&M .314/.407/.501 91-128 .645 4.01 586.1 503 210
The offenses were relatively close; Texas A&M didn't finish far ahead of LSU (17 OPS points), UNC (22), or Texas (26). Fullerton was the trailer, but Dave Serrano's squad pressured defenses with 126 steals and 79 sacrifice hits. Texas was the clear top dog in Defensive Efficiency, finishing 14th in the nation. Missouri struggled in this area, which no doubt contributed to their lackluster 4.58 team ERA. The pitching categories clearly give the Tar Heels an edge; the 2.92 ERA and the 681 strikeouts are both historic numbers.
A good defense and a talented group of pitchers deserve the credit, and the Tar Heels know they won't be playing at the USA Baseball Training Facility again, as this year they'll return home to a rebuilt Boshamer Stadium. The pitching staff features many of the same pitchers, but even with a comparable defense, a rise above 3.00 in ERA must be anticipated. Louisiana State is also undergoing a change in venue; the team will move into brand-new Alex Box Stadium. Paul Mainieri said that the park will play hitter-friendly in the long run, but the grounds crew is opting to keep the infield grass long in the stadium's first weeks, which should give Mainieri's untested pitching staff some time to gain confidence.
In analyzing what else has changed, it might be best to look at what's been lost, so here are the accumulated numbers of all of the players with at least 10 innings or 25 PAs in 2008 who are no longer with these programs:
School PA AVG/ OBP/ SLG SB-SBA ERA IP K BB
CSUF 726 .324/.419/.482 30-45 4.51 301.2 259 81
LSU 579 .313/.406/.597 12-16 4.71 349.2 315 126
Mizzou 560 .307/.402/.497 17-23 3.50 177.2 183 61
UNC 1475 .326/.403/.507 36-51 2.48 105.1 121 52
Texas 543 .311/.440/.609 17-24 4.33 131.0 143 64
Tex A&M 1600 .323/.408/.503 61-86 6.17 65.2 58 30
With the exception of Texas A&M, all of these programs lost their top OPS hitter from 2008, and while Luke Anders returns to College Station, he has little experienced protection in the lineup. The most difficult to replace of the group for any single team will be North Carolina's Tim Fedroff, if only because the coaching staff could not have anticipated that the sophomore would opt to go pro; in contrast, Fullerton's Erik Komatsu, LSU's Matt Clark, Missouri's Jacob Priday, and Texas' Kyle Russell were all commodities whose exit from their respective programs had already been known and planned for. This is why Texas will have no problem finding a viable right fielder to replace Russell, while the Tar Heels' outfield looks short-handed.
As we know, however, a position player's value to his team is two-fold: five of these six programs were in the top 50 last year in defense as well. There's no doubt, for instance, that freshmen Brooks Raley and Barret Loux had an easier transition in 2008 due to the Aggies' defense. Gone from that defense is three-fourths of the infield, leaving only mediocre first baseman Luke Anders. Moving Kyle Seager to third will improve the North Carolina infield defense, but I just don't see the team overcoming the loss of Seth Williams and Fedroff in the outfield. Texas will have the same issue with Russell and Jordan Danks no longer in Austin, so both programs will need to find fly-catchers to support their powerful pitching staffs. Missouri and Cal State Fullerton might be the only two that have improved; they're the clubs who have players coming in that might be better defenders than the players they're replacing.
This will be important for both, as each lost two starters from their weekend rotation. The loss of Aaron Crow, who won 13 of his 15 starts last season, is the most significant on this list, no matter how strong-armed sophomore Nick Tepesch fares in his first spring start. No one lost more arms than top-ranked LSU, but the team should be able to find a way to replace 350 innings of 4.71 ERA-no matter how important Jared Bradford seemed to the program in Omaha. The other three programs lost very little; Texas' Kenn Kasparek and North Carolina's Rob Wooten are the only players worth mentioning here. North Carolina and Texas A&M gained more depth when Adam Warren and Alex Wilson, respectively, opted to return to school.
These are the things that have changed with the best six programs in the nation since last June, which doesn't adequately explain why they rank at the top. I'll finish things off today with a simple list for all six teams: what I know I like, what I'm assuming might happen (which no doubt provoked these rankings), and what I think could be the cause of any potential downfall.
1. Louisiana State
What I Like: Football standout Chad Jones will be playing more baseball this spring, and he'll join wide receiver Jared Mitchell and Leon Landry, the nation's best center fielder, in the outfield. "Not only do I think that, when they play together, they will be the best outfield in the country, but I think they could be one of the best we have seen in college baseball," Mainieri told me, and I would agree. If D.J. LeMahieu can progress as a sophomore, this team has a chance to be as good as anyone in the field.
What I'm Assuming: A breakout from Anthony Ranaudo; Mainieri's best recruit since joining the Louisiana State program. The big right-hander pitched just 12 innings a year ago, allowing five hits in eight appearances. Coming out of high school, major league teams thought that three years of college polish might be best for Ranaudo-but the Tigers can't afford to wait around for him. I'm assuming that Ranaudo will be better than Ryan Verdugo (4.12 ERA) was a year ago.
What Could Be a Problem: I've tried to reassure myself a dozen times that if LSU can win 49 games with the departed Bradford, Blake Martin, and Jordan Brown as their starters-who delivered 250 innings, a 4.93 ERA, 25 home runs, and 289 hits last season-then they can win with Austin Ross on Saturdays and Daniel Bradshaw on Sundays. Neither guy has a third pitch, nor have they done much starting in the SEC, so this will be the team's big challenge in the season to come.
What I like: This is the most well-rounded team in college baseball. In the field, the team should expect some regression to the mean after ranking 14th in the nation in Defensive Efficiency a year ago, but Augie Garrido coaches defense as well as anyone. The team has seven starters returning to a good lineup, and also a bench that will allow for real versatility. The pitching staff is similarly deep, and has two good sophomores fronting it in Chance Ruffin and Brandon Workman.
What I'm Assuming: That the power will come from somewhere. Brandon Belt, the highly touted junior college transfer, hit just one home run after April 19. Catcher Cameron Rupp, such an instant success in the month of March, hit only one home run after clubbing two dingers on March 14. Kevin Keyes should hit more than four home runs this year; Preston Clark should hit more than eight. Forty-three percent of the players with the team's 60 home runs last year aren't on this year's roster, but still, I'm assuming better power production this season.
What Could Be a Problem: I can't shake the feeling that this team might still be a year away; the Longhorns promise to feature prominently on this list a year from now as well. Why the doubt, though? The all-sophomore rotation will go through some growing pains this season, especially Ruffin, who simply won't match last season's 1.96 ERA. It's clear that the program has been built around the assumption that 2010 is their season, but what will that mean for 2009?
3. Texas A&M
What I like: The Aggies have the type of pitching staff that makes it difficult to imagine them losing a single game. On weekdays, for example, this team will throw Clayton Ehlert and Scott Migl. Both have started on weekends in College Station, and probably have as much experience as the rest of the Big 12's weekday starters combined. No team in the nation will be able to match the velocity that Barret Loux will bring on Saturdays and Alex Wilson on Sundays, or that Kyle Thebeau has in the set-up role. That will be worth quite a bit.
What I'm Assuming: That a top-heavy offense will be enough. Clearly, this is a team that depends on leadoff man Kyle Colligan (.317/.421/.568) and first baseman Luke Anders (.349/.486/.660). Both are near-locks to be all-conference, and Anders has a real chance to be the Big 12 Player of the Year. While he could get some protection from Joe Patterson, a junior-college transfer, I'm assuming that Colligan and Anders will be enough on some days, especially given the expected performance of this team's pitching staff.
What Could Be a Problem: The defense looks like real trouble. Freshman shortstops can be problematic, and freshman Adam Smith wasn't high-profile enough as a recruit to make me think that he'll stabilize the position. The outfield will be a saving grace-all three starters can cover ground, and Friday-night starting pitcher Brooks Raley has a rocket of an arm when he's playing right field on the other nights. Considering how much the defense helped this pitching staff a year ago, will there be opposite results in 2009?
4. Cal State Fullerton
What I like: This is the best group of position players that Dave Serrano has ever had. Three were on Team USA last summer; Josh Fellhauer was second on the team in hitting, and Jared Clark led the way in home runs. Clark could be a monster this season given an increase in contact or his .327 BABIP from a year ago. Infielders Christian Colon and Gary Brown are huge talents who could really break out, helping get this team to 50 wins, 150 stolen bases, and another trip to Omaha.
What I'm Assuming: That Michael Morrison becomes a star in the weekend rotation. Armed with one of the West Coast's better strikeout-generating curveballs, Morrison was a boon down the stretch last season. In his last 12 appearances, he pitched against eight teams in Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings' top 20. In that time frame, Morrison posted a 1.66 ERA over 21 2/3 innings, while striking out 21. Best may have been going 3 1/3 innings without giving up an earned run against Arizona State on April 22; not many were able to do that last year.
What Could Be a Problem: The bullpen. The team will be using freshman Tyler Pill in the closer role; and I think he's the least of their worries. This rotation is simply not good enough to worry about blown leads from a bullpen that only has one member returning that didn't have an ERA over five last season. Serrano has been known to do good work with relievers, but there's a long way to go with this group.
5. North Carolina
What I like: For the third time in school history, the Tar Heels are likely to feature two eventual first-round selections. This happened previously in 2004 with Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, as well as in 1985 with top overall pick B.J. Surhoff and shortstop Walt Weiss. That's pretty good company to be in, and ace Alex White and first baseman Dustin Ackley deserve it. Both are Golden Spikes Award contenders, and I expect them to lead UNC to Omaha just as Gordon Beckham and Josh Fields did for Georgia a year ago.
What I'm Assuming: My prediction is that Mark Fleury will effectively replace Tim Federowicz as the Tar Heels' backstop. I don't know how bold this is, as Federowicz never got better after his freshman season at the plate, but clearly he was a positive for this pitching staff. I see no reason that Fleury-who threw out eight of 16 potential basestealers last season-can't fill that role. He must be better with passed balls given how often this staff will leave balls in the dirt, but it's a skill that I expect him to improve.
What Could Be a Problem: As I expressed above, the outfield is untested, and if Mike Cavasinni is any indication, the outcome won't be particularly good. Cavasinni is undersized and incapable of getting extra-base hits; the Tar Heels would be better served by immediately moving Ackley to the outfield and putting the next person in line at first base. On the other hand, this rotation will be frustrated if coach Mike Fox lines up a below-average outfield that scores runs but can't defend.
What I like: I see Missouri as Texas Lite-a well-rounded team with strengths across the board. Aaron Senne is the best player that no one has heard of, something the junior hopes to change following his .347/.461/.593 campaign in 2008. Ace Kyle Gibson is the more familiar name, and he has a talented group of arms behind him. In all, the team is returning eight starting position players, and it seems the program has never been more ready to take the final step.
What I'm Assuming: The defense will be better. I'm confident in this group's ability to improve on last year's showing at 165th in the nation, as the fallout from the exit of Jacob Priday and Kurt Calvert moving on will be a positive. Last year's second baseman, Greg Folgia, is moving to the outfield to replace Calvert, leaving the 2008 shortstop to move to second base. At shortstop, the team plans on using transfer Mike Liberto, whom Aaron Fitt at Baseball America called a "defensive whiz." From my vantage point, that's four positions that have been improved in terms of defense.
What Could Be a Problem: There are a lot of players on the roster that still, after a year or two, have not made good on the promise of their potential. Ryan Lollis had an unacceptable .088 Isolated Power last season, and catcher Trevor Coleman saw a serious regression in his power. As good as Gibson has been, he's also been very inconsistent, and as good as sophomore Nick Tepesch is, he only struck out 17 batters in his 30 innings last year. This team reminds me of Ole Miss a year ago-a ton of unproven talent-and I'm just not sure I mean that as a compliment.
That's it for today; that is college baseball's first tier. Next week, we'll finish out the top 25 while looking at the second tier in detail, with an explanation for why I ranked them as I did.
Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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